The Clock


1898. Hans Werner bent over his work table puzzling at the clock in front of him. This was Baden-Baden, Germany and every tourist wanted cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest. This clock had come into Werner’s possession by way of a peddler. According to the peddler, the clock would not start and he planned to throw it away. Werner never met a clock he couldn’t fix. He took the simple wooden, pendulum clock home to his workshop. Working on the clock for weeks, Hans still hadn’t been able to make it chime. He picked up his awl and began to work on the clock mechanism when he cut his finger. A drop of blood fell on the clock face and the pendulum moved. Werner sat upright amazed; he pushed his glasses up on his nose. Opening the clock face door, he moved the hands to twelve and the music of the chime began immediately. This was the sweetest sound he had ever heard and he sat transfixed counting the “bongs” of the clock. As the clock struck the 12th note, Werner felt a pain in his chest. It was like an elephant sitting on him. He clutched at his shirt, his eyes bulged, and he fell off the stool, dead.


           She shuffled, bent and gray toward the bathroom. The nurse had just come to wake her to take a pill so, Barbara decided to get up and begin her day. Her bathroom was just twenty steps away in the tiny, dark room, but it might as well have been a mile. Body soreness and stiffness were always worse in the morning. Barbara’s doctors told her to keep moving, but there were days when that seemed impossible. She prevailed, however, and managed to keep moving despite her 94 years. The last couple of years she had, more than once, wondered why she kept going. Barbara’s friends had all passed away and her immediate family was gone except for the young ones, and they didn’t care if she existed.

           Today promised to be a good day. Barbara’s niece, Karen, was coming to spend the day. Barbara had moved into Assisted Living over 4 years ago, a present for her 90th birthday! Although it wasn’t a bad place, it was lonely. No one in her family came to visit and the phone calls, which came regularly when she first moved in, were now sporadic and sparse. Karen had called last week to tell Barbara she would be stopping by. Barbara longed for visitors and was pleased whenever anyone stopped.

           As Barbara came out of the bathroom, she heard the wall clock chime seven o’clock. She smiled. Her failing hearing made it hard to hear the chimes unless she was sitting in her recliner, looking directly at the clock. But this morning she heard it loud and clear. The clock had belonged to Mr. Hugh Gifford. Tom Gifford was Barbara’s husband and Hugh had been Tom’s grandfather. Hugh bought the clock while serving during World War I. Hugh wanted to buy his new wife a cuckoo clock from Germany, but all he could afford was this crude, wooden pendulum clock. It had no cuckoo, but its chime was the sweetest sound in the world. Tom talked about the clock hanging in the hallway of his grandparents’ house. When his grandfather died, it was said that the clock stopped.

Barbara had worried when she moved into her one-room apartment that Tom’s clock wouldn’t find a place, but Karen made sure it was hung where Barbara could see and hear it when she sat in her chair. Karen was an interior decorator and had placed all of Barbara’s favorite furniture in the room. The result was a room that was a source of pride for the complex. When new people were looking to move in, Barbara’s place was always shown as an example of gracious living. At first, Barbara had been proud of the attention, now it was just a bother. Barbara didn’t like the extra attention.  

           Karen had been very specific when she called last week. “Go ahead and follow your normal schedule Aunt Barbara. Since I’m driving, I don’t know exactly what time I will get there. And traffic can always be a factor.” Barbara resigned herself to the fact she would have to endure the questions from her table-mates at breakfast and again at lunch if Karen hadn’t arrived. She headed out the door and down the hall toward the dining room.

           “Good morning, Barbara,” a raspy voice behind her called.

           Barbara turned to see Kiki. Kiki was a large woman who lived 2 doors down the hall from Barbara. She pushed a walker to get around the building and delighted in covering the metal frame with artificial flowers and other decorations for the season. Today snowflakes were hanging from the rails.

           “Good morning, Kiki,” Barbara replied.

           “I hear you are having a visitor today. Aren’t you all dolled up!”

           “Yes. My niece is to come sometime today.” Barbara wished she didn’t have to slow down so Kiki could keep up with her. Kiki’s breath was very labored and it made Barbara uncomfortable.

           “I wish I was having a visitor. You’re lucky your family still comes to see you.”

           Barbara just nodded. She knew that most of the folks in her building never had visitors. Barbara felt a little guilty that she was feeling sorry about sharing the experience with her fellow residents. “It is nice, isn’t it?”

           After breakfast, Barbara decided to walk straight back to her room. Sometimes after breakfast, she would make a loop around the building to get some exercise. That usually led to meeting more people in the halls and she didn’t want to share any more personal information. Barbara felt very tired this morning, more than usual, so when she sat down in her comfy green chair, she was relieved to put her feet up.

           The clock chimed and Barbara leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Hearing the clock always brought a flood of memories. After Hugh’s funeral, Tom’s father, Paul Gifford, brought the clock home. The clock then hung in his study and Paul was careful to keep it wound.

One summer, when Tom was a teenager, Paul and the family had gone on a fishing trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While there, Paul suffered a massive stroke. He survived but was unable to walk by himself or speak very well. Tom had been shown how to wind the clock, but he was always too busy to pay much attention. The day Paul died, everyone noticed that the clock had stopped. Rumors were whispered that the clock’s stopping and Paul’s death were somehow linked. Tom had carried guilt about forgetting to wind the clock regularly. He confided to Barbara later that he believed there might be some truth to the rumor.

            Tom had been a big man, 6 feet 4 inches, to Barbara’s tiny frame. She stood 4 feet 10 inches in her stocking feet. Now, she doubted that she reached 10 inches, probably more like 6 inches. Tom passed away from brain cancer 15 years earlier and for the 6 months leading up to his death, Barbara had spent her days in the nursing home where she had moved Tom when she could no longer care for him. She remembered the night she left the nursing home to arrive home and find that the clock was running slow. Making a mental note to wind the clock the next morning she had gone on to bed. During the night she received a call that Tom had passed away and when she checked, the clock had stopped.

            A few years after Tom was gone, Barbara was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration. When Barbara realized that her eyesight was getting worse, she knew it was time to move into an Assisted Living facility. She didn’t mind dying, right now living was pretty tough with no one in the family to care about her and the stories she had to tell.

Barbara opened her eyes and realized she had fallen asleep. The clock chimed eleven o’clock and Barbara struggled to get out of her chair. She brushed through her hair with her hands and walked out into the hallway and down to the main desk. Darla was sitting there and looked up.

“Hi, Barbara. What can I do for you?”

“Well, it seems I sat down in my chair and fell asleep after breakfast. I wondered if I had missed a call or anything.”

Darla looked at a paper pad in front of her. “No, I don’t see anything. Are you expecting someone?”

Barbara laughed. “You must be the only one who doesn’t know. My niece, Karen, is on her way here. She didn’t know exactly what time she might arrive.”

“That explains why you look so nice today.” Darla smiled at Barbara. Barbara was one of her favorite residents. Barbara was one of the oldest, but she still had all her faculties and always made pleasant conversation. The other residents could be testy and not always coherent. “Of course, you always look nice Miss Barbara, but you look especially good today.”

“Thank you.” Barbara turned to return to her room. She stopped at her mailbox on the way and found nothing in the box this morning. It didn’t matter, with her deteriorating eyesight, she couldn’t read most mail anyway. Barbara had always been so attentive in sending birthday, Christmas, and get well cards that it bothered her that she couldn’t do it anymore. Her handwriting was so bad that no one could read it and she couldn’t see the addresses in her book to write them down. It made her especially angry that she couldn’t write a decent thank you note. In her day, writing notes showed manners and courtesy.

Barbara sat down in her chair once again. She could feel the sunshine coming through her window and it should have warmed her. For some reason today, Barbara felt cold and tired. She laughed at herself, “Well, you are 94 after all!”

It was too early to go down the hall for lunch and she didn’t feel like walking the halls, so she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She took the quilt off the back of her chair and wrapped it around herself. She couldn’t explain why she was so cold this morning, but the colorful quilt her mother had made when Barbara was a child warmed her heart. She could still hear the old Singer sewing machine rat-a-tatting in the dining room on the farm, and the scent of her mother sitting next to her looping a pattern on the quilt. These moments on the farm were Barbara’s favorite memories. Barbara’s brothers did chores outside or in the barn and Barbara spent her hours in the kitchen or learning to sew.

Barbara thought about all her mother’s quilts that she had saved and boxed. What would happen to them when she was gone and would they ever cover and protect another child? It was sad to think they would be thrown out or sent to Good Will. She pulled her quilt tighter around her shoulders. Maybe she would talk to Karen about the quilts.

The clock chimed and Barbara sighed – time for lunch. She found getting up hard, her body ached more than usual. But she knew if she didn’t show up at the dining room the nurses would come and find out why, so she pushed herself onto her feet.

Lunch brought more questions and it seemed that everyone in the dining room knew of the impending visit. Barbara tried to be as gracious as she could, but inside she felt her stomach tighten and her only thought was getting back to her quiet room. She found she wasn’t hungry and retreated.

The colorful quilt in her chair called to her and she happily sat down and wrapped the soft comfort around her shoulders. As she settled into the chair the clock chimed but the melody was different. She thought that the pendulum was swinging more slowly than usual. Barbara tried to remember when the clock was last wound and decided to tell Karen to check when she arrived. It was hard getting anyone here to wind the clock.

Sitting here waiting brought back memories of times that Barbara sat in hospitals watching the people she loved lose their fight for life. First her father, after a third stroke he lay in a coma for three days before it was decided that he would never wake up. Her mother was diagnosed with Uterine Cancer in May and Barbara was with her when she lost her battle in July. Tom’s brain tumor took Barbara to the hospital again. It was hard to watch Tom drift in and out of recognition and ultimately, he lost the fight as well. Barbara wiped a tear from her cheek from the memory. She wondered if anyone would sit by her side when her time came. Barbara shivered at that thought and sank deeper into her chair.

Barbara felt her mind begin to quiet as she looked at the clock. She could see the pendulum’s movement slowing and closed her eyes.

A nurse stepped into the room with her medical cart and looked at Barbara in her chair. She looked so small and fragile wrapped in the beautiful, colorful quilt. She called softly, “Barbara?” The nurse walked over to the chair and knew there was no need to shake Barbara. She turned to see a young woman appear in the doorway.

“Hi! I’m Karen, Barbara’s niece.”

2 thoughts on “The Clock

  1. Beautifully written as you tell the story of all of us in our desire for connection. Your words express our shared experiences of losing loved ones, our experiences of watching our loved ones aging and our experiences of accepting our own aging process. Thank you for sharing. Congratulations on your much deserved accolade!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Barbara, thank you for the kind words. This was a labor of love to write – Barbara is such a dear person and the rest of the family has sort of abandoned her – every time I visit (which isn’t as often as I would like) she always thanks me for listening! Thanks again!


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